The letter to the Hebrews is unique among all the letters in the New Testament. We don’t know who wrote it, where they wrote it from, when they wrote it or exactly who it was addressed to.
But there are some clues. As regards its date, in the letter, the writer is explaining that following Jesus is far better than the Old Testament system of offering sacrifices. He writes as if these sacrifices were still being offered by Jews in the temple. In AD70 the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, an event predicted by Jesus Himself at the end of His public ministry. This meant that the Jews were no longer able to use the temple for animal sacrifices that had been part of the Law under the Old Covenant. So it seems likely that the letter is written before AD70. Towards the end of the letter we read about Timothy, one of Paul’s companions, being released from prison, which probably took place around AD65.
If we can guess at the date, we are much less certain of the author and destination. A case has been made for the Apostle Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and Apollos, but there is no consensus, and Hebrews 2:3-4 suggests the author coming to faith through apostolic witness, whereas Paul came to faith through a vision of Jesus. So it is probably not written by Paul. It is clear that the author is well versed in the Old Testament sacrificial system and understands the ways in which Jesus coming fulfils that system. He knew how to link texts in ways that were very persuasive to traditional Jewish audiences. But we simply don’t know who. It is included in our New Testament and so we know that the Holy Spirit inspired it, even if we don’t know the human author.
As for the destination, this too is unclear. There is mention of Timothy being released from prison (presumably in Rome), and that the author intends to meet the readers, if Timothy arrives with them soon. Later he says that those in Italy send greetings, all of which suggests that the recipients are not in Rome, Italy. But we have no clear indication of where they may be.
What is clear from the text of the Letter is that these are Christians with a Jewish background, tempted to return to the Jewish faith. There could be a few reasons for this. Those who followed the Jewish faith were offered a degree of protection under the Roman law, in a way that Christians were not. The Jews were known to persecute the Christians who they regarded as heretics for believing in ‘a crucified messiah’, which in Jewish eyes proved He wasn’t the Messiah that was promised.
The book concerns a big issue in the New Testament that is addressed in various ways by its writers: what is the relationship between the Old and New testaments? The apostles came to understand that Christ fulfils the Old Testament Law, and His sacrifice was the one final sacrifice for sin, to which the other sacrifices pointed. The writer is urging the readers not to abandon their faith in Christ for an inferior system. The laws and sacrifices had their place under the old arrangement that God had with Israel. Now all peoples, including those who were formerly Jews, can be part of the new arrangement through faith in Christ.
The writer is thus warning his readers that to turn back to the Old Covenant would lead them to lose the precious salvation they had enjoyed.
Why read it?
We value the Old Testament as the Word of God and God’s revealed will on how we should live, but we also seek to understand how God sends Jesus to complete the work He was starting in the Old Covenant, dealing with Israel’s sin, and extending salvation to all peoples.
Today we live as Christians under a New Covenant that God made with Israel, and was extended to all who would trust in Jesus. On 15 occasions the author uses the words ‘better’ and ‘superior’to describe how things are compared to the Old Covenant.
Hence, this is a great book to keep in mind as we read the Old Testament, and especially the early books which outline the Law and regulations that Israel were called to keep as part of the covenant made with Moses.
Some of the chapters may seem hard going if we are unfamiliar with the sacrificial system God put in place to emphasise the seriousness of sin. But they help us to enjoy and value the ease in which we can approach God and remind us to be grateful for all Jesus accomplished.
On five occasions the writer warns the readers about their conduct, or potential conduct, and the dire consequences of abandoning Christ: 2:1-4; 4:12-13; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 12:25-29. There is no question about the ability of God to keep those who believe, but these readers were in the very real danger of abandoning their faith, hence the authors concern that they persevere regardless of the trials they faced, or the temptation to opt for what seems a more pleasant route in life. We are wise to heed these warnings in our own context lest we too take our faith lightly, and fail to step into all the good things God promises for us.
Hence alongside these warnings are wonderful exhortations to rejoice in the good things that God has done, adopting us into His family, promising eternal deliverance, and receiving help amidst life’s challenges and temptations.
|1||Christ is superior to the angels|
|2-4||Christ is superior to Moses and Joshua|
|5-7||Christ is superior to Aaron’s priesthood|
|8-10||Christ is superior to the Mosaic Law|
|11-13||Faith in Christ is the basis for living|